California drivers, feel free to text away -- as long as you don't use your fingers.
Much to the chagrin of many motorists disturbed by the growing problem of distracted drivers, a new state law kicks in Tuesday that will allow anyone behind the wheel to receive and send a text message as long as they are using technology designed to allow for a fully voice-operated, hands-free operation.
"A bad idea," said Eric Nordman, a 54-year-old mechanical engineer from Palo Alto. "There are enough distracted drivers out there without adding to the problem."
Proponents say ever-changing technology makes the new law inevitable, and they say it's better than having drivers type messages from handheld phones with their eyes off the road.
A driver going 55 mph while typing can cover the length of a football field without looking up, studies have shown.
The texting change is one of several new traffic laws to go into effect in 2013, including one setting standards on the use of red-light cameras and another allowing drivers to park free at locations where meters are broken.
The new rule on texting has caught the attention of safety advocates from California to Washington, D.C.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called cellphone use and texting "a national epidemic" and wants automakers to get behind voluntary government efforts to ensure dashboard technologies increasingly being added to cars won't distract drivers.
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on cellphone use by drivers, including the use of hands-free phones. Most studies show hands-free conversations are just as distracting to drivers as those involving handheld phones.
The new California law prohibits texting while driving unless it's done on an "electronic wireless communications device (that) is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication." That appears to mean texting with the iPhone's Siri or Android's Google Now is OK, because the law allows drivers to touch a device to activate or deactivate it or to enter a telephone number.
"This clarifies some of the gray areas in previous laws," said spokesman Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety. But he said it's preferable not to use cellphones while driving at all, as "research has shown that the conversation itself is dangerous due to inattention blindness and the brain's tendency to move functions needed for driving over to the conversation."
Questions posed to a dozen drivers revealed that all think it's unwise to allow texting while driving, even with a hands-free gadget.
"The law doesn't reduce or eliminate the mental distraction," said Tim Hyde, of San Jose, whose son was hit by a texting driver at the Highway 85-87 interchange. "But being as pragmatic as I am, I know there will never be a way to legislate that away, as it would be virtually undetectable and unenforceable."
Added Sue Fikes, a 70-year-old retired junior high math teacher from Palo Alto: "Who needs to do texting of any kind while driving?"
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.